As the Rev. Tom Griffith strode into a West Hollywood gay bar last Christmas Eve in flowing robes of purple--the liturgical color for the Advent season--he drew a howl from a surprised bartender.
"Well, hi, faa-ther," the bartender said in mock exaggeration, thinking Griffith was not what he seemed.
Moments later the bartender, tipped off by a customer who happened to belong to Griffith's church, was chagrined. "Oh, my God," the barkeep said, "you really are a priest! I thought somebody was coming in drag!"
Griffith, who is straight, married and the father of a 6-year-old son, just laughed. He is used to it.
For the past three years on Christmas Eve, the pastor of Crescent Heights United Methodist Church has put on his liturgical vestments to go barhopping in West Hollywood.
He starts at one end of Santa Monica Boulevard and works his way down the street, dropping in on straight and gay bars alike. He seeks out those who need solace at what can be a difficult time of year--especially for those whose families are far away, geographically or emotionally.
"Mostly, the reaction has been: 'Lord, I'm lonely,' " Griffith said. "They're just out because they can't stand being alone. . . . One man told me his wife had left him."
So for several hours on Christmas Eve, in one bar after another, he passes out cards inviting the customers to his church for the midnight candlelight service.
Griffith's forays are not without historical precedent. "Methodist circuit riders (in the 19th Century) went into the wilderness and went to taverns. That's where the people were gathered," he said.
His bishop, the Rev. Roy I. Sano, said he supports Griffith's unconventional evangelism.
"I am very glad to hear our clergy extending our ministry beyond the four walls of the church," Sano said. "We extend the message of Christ's love to everyone, everywhere." According to the bishop's office, no other Methodist clergy take their ministry to bars.
Griffith said he has been thrown out of two bars, but that is the exception. Most bar owners and customers say that his visit is an appropriate gesture on Christmas Eve--once they understand that he is not asking for contributions but only inviting people to church.
Two years ago, Griffith brought along the Rev. Jack M. Tuell, now retired, who was Sano's predecessor as bishop. A few hours later, 40 bar patrons were sitting in the pews. Griffith began his sermon with the words, "Loneliness sucks."
"Mostly, I preach that God came to make us whole," said Griffith, 45, who was ordained in 1971. "Jesus came to make us whole, to be our friend, and to save us from a sense of desperation and loneliness. This is quite consistent with the Christian Gospel."
One bar patron wrote Griffith later: "I came to the bar because I couldn't stand being alone at home on Christmas Eve. . . . I hadn't been in a church in years, but right then I decided I'd rather be in the church on Christmas Eve than in this bar. So I came."
Most of those who show up Christmas Eve are not seen again until the next year, if then, Griffith said.
But Griffith said he regards their presence as his Christmas gift. He said that when he decided to hit the streets, he was "desperate" for an audience. He knew what he wanted to preach. He just needed someone to listen.
His congregation numbers only 17 members. Four years ago, when he started, it was smaller.
"I could count on the custodian, the organist and myself (to attend)," Griffith said.
"(West Hollywood) is a very difficult place to stay a church. We're the last remaining mainline Protestant church that hasn't tried to be a gay community. . . . There are already too many churches competing for that market, if I can use that phrase," Griffith said.
He said that although most of the members of his congregation are heterosexuals, everyone is welcome. "We're a reconciling congregation," he said.
This Christmas Eve will mark the fourth year that Griffith, a nondrinker, will venture into the bars.
The service will begin at 11:59 p.m. Christmas Eve. Griffith said the public is "welcome and encouraged to attend."